There’s something to be said about Taiwan — she has many sides to her. While this island owes a lot of its global success to its economic policies, this tiny democratic island has a lot more to offer the curious traveller than the “made in” stamps would have you think.
Beyond the noisy concrete and aluminium boulevards of Taipei, far from the city’s vertiginous skyscrapers, neon lights and elevated high-speed railway tracks, almost floating in the clouds, distinct and apart, lies a different world.
It’s a world where glistening forests, snowy peaked mountains, breathtaking sunsets and an amazing array of wildlife feature. When Taiwan’s glistening city life starts to pall, it’s time to take a walk on her wild side. Just don’t forget to bring enough warm clothes while you’re at it.
“Bird tour?” I look sceptically at the itinerary. “Yes, something right up your alley,” retorts my editor drily. Where are my glamorous trips? The ones with pedicures thrown in? I wonder aloud. She grins instead. That’s my answer right there. It seems that the only pedicure I’m going to get out of this trip are bunions and hangnails from lugging my weight with binoculars in hand. Oh well. The birds will definitely not disappoint, I deduce.
After all, Taiwan is home to the elusive “kings of the mist” in local parlance — the stately Swinhoe and Mikado pheasants. And with the lure of seeing Black-faced spoonbills in their wetlands habitat, it’s more than enough to lure the dormant bird-watcher in me out of hiding. Surrounded by clean waters, pristine forests and dotted with stunning mountain landscapes and fertile plains, Taiwan nevertheless places her natural bounty and healthy birdlife within easy reach of bird-watchers and nature lovers. The Taiwanese bird list currently stands at an impressive 550-plus species and among those, are a host of fascinating endemic birds, making the country a fabulous birding destination in her own right.
The blast of cold air that hits me as I emerge from the busy Taoyuan International Airport tells me I’m going to be cursing myself in the subsequent days for not listening to good advice. I recalled sunny Taiwan from previous trips and decided to pack clothes fit for a moderately sunny climate with some long sleeves t-shirts, a jacket, scarf and a pair of gloves reluctantly thrown in — my only concession to early warnings that “it can get quite chilly up in the mountains”.
The itinerary clutched in my hand informs me that there are two mountains looming up ahead of me in the coming days. I soon find myself on a bus with a motley bunch of avid bird watchers, guides, travel agents and writers from Thailand, Philippines, China, Malaysia and Korea, traversing through the length of Taiwan in search of some of the country’s remarkable avian creatures.
“We want you to have the best birding experience in Taiwan!” insists Victor Yu, the affable president of Ecotourism Taiwan. And with that, our treasure hunt commences with two able local guides in charge (“You couldn’t ask for better guides!” says Yu with pride), Greg Guh and Mei Fong Liao.
From humid wetlands to cold highlands, we’re off on an unforgettable journey to experience the best of Taiwan’s stunning natural landscapes. With over two-thirds of Taiwan being mountainous, there’s a lot of space to get away from the crowds and the bustling city life. And move away we do, driving south, then east, climbing up to the Dasyueshan National Forest Recreation Area in the Anmashan mountain range. It takes us about four hours from Taipei to reach the “birding mecca” that this scenic mountain resort is famous for.
Of course, there are stops along the way. Liao’s keen ears and eyes get us alighting from the bus several times clutching our binoculars to bird-watch. “So far so good,” I reassure myself. The sun is out, we skulk along the road staring at bushes and undergrowth for some sign of movements, arousing the curiosity of locals who slow down to stare at a group of foreigners staring intently at the skies, trees and ground. We hear the calls of the Taiwan Hwamei — a passerine bird endemic to Taiwan, and manage to snag a good view of the crested serpent eagle and the spotted dove. The latter two are not the star birds we’re hoping to see, but the day is still young and the sighting of any bird still manages to give us some excitement!
WELCOME TO DASYUESHAN NATIONAL FOREST RECREATION AREA
My thin jacket does nothing to keep the chills out as we travel higher up the mountain. Unsurprisingly, Dasyueshan means “Big Snow Mountain”. This national forest recreation area located in Taichung County rises from 1,000 metres to just under 3,000 metres and the total area of the park measures 3,963 hectares. During the hottest period in summer, the temperature hovers around 18°Celsius whereas during the coldest months, it can plummet to -5° Celsius. Clutching the edges of my jacket close to myself, I’m beginning to feel like I’m about to turn into a block of ice.
“We’re going to look for the Swinhoes,” announces Guh. The thought of Swinhoes perk me up a little. With its glossy blue-purple chest, belly and rump, white nape, red wattles, white tail feathers and a white crest, the Swinhoe pheasant a striking bird to spot. Alongside the Mikado pheasants and Taiwan magpies, these endemic birds are unofficially considered the national symbols of Taiwan, which in turn, played a huge role in their conservation and protection. In some areas such as Dasyueshan, they’re regularly sighted feeding along roadsides which have become birdwatching hotspots.
Stopping at a nondescript rest area, we alight from the bus with Guh and Liao beckoning towards us to stop at a nearby ledge. We don’t have to wait long as two male swinhoes along with two females soon saunter in full view. There’s also the added bonus of Taiwan partridges (six in total) with inquisitive squirrels making their appearance. Cold weather forgotten, we jostle for a good view of the birds with cameras whirring and clicking, while the birds seem oblivious to our excitement.
UP AND AROUND THE MOUNTAIN
We reach in time to view the glorious sunset that Dasyueshan is famed for. Forget the freezing temperatures — the scene is literally to die for. We stand on the topmost floor and attempt to capture the brilliant sunset against the backdrop of the mountain range and sea of clouds.
Evening falls early, with sunset at approximately 5.30pm. Back home, it’s just the beginning of a traffic snarl back from work. Over here, life is remarkably different. Darkness sets in early and a different kind of atmosphere settles in the park. The moonless night sky is glistening with twinkling stars. At mid and high elevations, the air is clear and there’s little light pollution, so Dasyueshan is a well-known spot in Taiwan to watch stars. Our intrepid guides hustle us to get ready for a night walk around the Dasyueshan Guest House where we’re putting up for the night.
The undulating topography of the park with relatively large changes in elevation, contain average slopes that exceed 30 per cent. This means that half the time I’m climbing endless steps, puffing and panting on slopes and trying hard not to have a heart attack while attempting to look for nocturnal birds and wildlife in the park.
“You can do this,” urges Guh and he falls back to walk with me, while the rest rush ahead uphill lugging their big cameras and scopes. A mountain serow (mountain goat) has been spotted by the sharp-eyed Liao. By the time I reach the top of yet another long flight of stairs, I’ve just got about enough energy to exchange cursory looks with an unamused goat feeding precariously by the ledge while cameras are clicking. I can’t decide which is worse — my racing heart or the bracing cold.
There aren’t any birds in sight. They’re obviously wiser than the group of bird watchers bundled up to their necks in the cold foggy night. We do, however, come across the White-faced flying squirrel and we’re more than delighted.
CONQUERING THE MOUNTAIN
The night soon passes. The morning sun filters into my room where I’m crouched beneath a quilt atop a heated mattress. It’s still very cold but I know at least I’ll not be turning into a human ice sculpture anytime soon.
Our bird-watching the next morning gives us better results. Eurasian Nutcrackers, Eurasian Jays, Coal Tits, Green-backed Tits, Yellow Tits, Black-throated Tits, Black Bulbuls, Taiwan Yuhina, White-eared Sibias and the Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers make their appearances with loud clear calls. Everywhere in the park are seas of green forests while the air turns cool and pleasant.
All too soon, it’s time to leave. I can’t help but feel a little elation at conquering one mountain (with another one to go), creaky knees notwithstanding. On our way down the mountain, I find myself noticing bird movements and sounds in a way I hadn’t done for a long while, and scanning the branches above me for the flighty perpetrators. Perhaps that’s all it takes with birds. For years, they’re not down in your business, and you’re not up in theirs. But then, one soulful exchange of glances and their world opens up to you.
For over a year my pair of binoculars had been gathering dust in the corner of my room. Daisyueshan National Forest Recreation Area has just made me realise what I’ve been missing — my colourful, flighty, skittish feathered friends and their brilliant, vivid green world out there in the wild.